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Honoring MLK in the Inaugural

Reagan Speech on the Creation of the Martin Luther King, Jr., National Holiday, November 2, 1983

The theme of this year’s inauguration is “Our People, Our Future,” a theme intended to promote national unity and reconciliation as most inaugurals do. In a Presidential Inaugural Committee video released over the weekend, President Obama noted that two men he admires more than anyone in American history are Dr. Martin Luther King and President Abraham Lincoln because without them, he would not be in office. The inaugural weekend once again featured a “Day of Service” because the public ceremony falls on the Martin Luther King, Jr. national holiday. President Obama told the country:

The inauguration reminds us of the role we have as citizens in promoting a common good as well as making sure we carry out our individual responsibilities.

President Obama will be sworn into his second term using the bibles of Dr. King and President Lincoln, bringing additional significance to the inaugural ceremonies as this year marks the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 50th Anniversary of the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” Dr. King’s speech to the participants in the August 1963 march was one of the most memorable moments and he roused the crowd by addressing the racial injustices and discrimination that continued to plague the nation 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation. He criticized the nation for defaulting on a “promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned”:

Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check which has come back marked "insufficient funds." But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check -- a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice. We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to open the doors of opportunity to all of God's children. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.

In some of the most powerful lines of the speech, Dr. King told the crowd he had a dream. Among his dreams was that his “four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

The objectives of the March on Washington were to obtain meaningful civil rights legislation; a federal works program; the right to vote; integrated education; better housing; and better employment opportunities. Check out this tape from our Presidential Recordings Program of a meeting between President Kennedy and civil rights leaders after the march in which the participants discussed the success of the march, moving forward with civil rights legislation and strategies for empowering black Americans.

On November 2, 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed the law creating the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Holiday.  On the occasion, President Reagan acknowledged Dr. King’s significant contributions and his words from August 1963:

In America, in the fifties and sixties, one of the important crises we faced was racial discrimination. The man whose words and deeds in that crisis stirred our nation to the very depths of its soul was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dr. King had awakened something strong and true, a sense that true justice must be colorblind, and that among white and black Americans, as he put it, "Their destiny is tied up with our destiny, and their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom; we cannot walk alone."

Dr. King's work brought him to this city often. And in one sweltering August day in 1963, he addressed a quarter of a million people at the Lincoln Memorial. If American history grows from two centuries to twenty, his words that day will never be forgotten. "I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood."

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